The learning curve for freshmen is always steep, but Kamiko Williams had a higher incline than most as she came from a high school system in Clarksville, Tenn., in which she was the featured player every possession to one in which she had to learn offensive and defensive schemes and how that meshed with four other teammates.
Williams has gotten incrementally better as the season has progressed – fighting through fatigue in practice and games has been a big challenge – and the Tennessee coaching staff is ready to put her on the court for the opening tip.
A year ago, Pat Summitt had to play freshmen before they had earned the minutes because of the loss of five starters from the previous season and injuries to key returning players. It set up a situation where first-year players thought they had arrived – Summitt has famously said that "you never arrive in this program" – and believed they had done sufficient work in practice to earn the starting nod.
The staff has carefully guarded against that mindset this season and has made adjustments to the starting lineup based on performance in practice and games.
Williams, to her credit, has made the leap from novice to key contributor during the course of the season, and her efforts will be rewarded Thursday with a start against the Razorbacks (7 p.m. Eastern, FSN) at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"Absolutely," Summitt said Monday evening. "It's going to be a wait and see how hard she plays, how many minutes she can play and how efficient she can be. But I've said many times she's our most athletic guard and really one of our most skilled players."
Ironically, the fluctuating lineups were set in motion by the health of another freshman, Taber Spani, a 6'1 guard/forward who has been hindered by late by turf toe. Spani had been starting on the perimeter, but she has been limited lately - and out completely this week - and received extra treatment Monday for the painful foot condition.
"I am not going to play her, if everything is going OK, until the Vanderbilt game (next Monday)," Summitt said.
Spani is the rare freshman who arrived on campus ready to play. She possesses the same work ethic as former Lady Vols Tamika Catchings and Nicky Anosike. But Summitt decided to rest Spani and hope the time off and treatment would make the month of February less painful for her.
"I think she concurs with me," Summitt said. "Right now, she's just not real mobile. And she knows that."
The loss of Spani leaves Angie Bjorklund as the team's most consistent long ball threat, and Summitt thinks that the presence of Williams at point will relieve some pressure on sophomore guard/forward Shekinna Stricklen and, by extension, the junior sharpshooter.
"I definitely think so," Summitt said of Bjorklund. "I think that happened at South Carolina as well."
Williams compiled the best performance of her young career with 17 points and four assists in the 60-55 win over South Carolina on Sunday in which the Lady Vols trailed for the first 32 minutes and didn't taken the lead for good until less than two minutes remained in the game.
"I think the more that she plays that position the more comfortable she will be," Summitt said. "It also keeps Kinna from having to run the point all the time, and it frees her up (to) get some good open looks not having to think at that point position for everybody and just be able to go play.
"I like what I saw from (Williams). Let's keep this thing in perspective. That's the best game she's played. There are a lot of times in practice where she does give in to fatigue, but I think she's started playing through that, which is good news for us. We've got a lot of games left."
That would indicate that Summitt is willing to give the freshman a legitimate chance, but that Stricklen had also better be ready to take the ball in her hands. For the coaches right now the key is that they have options.
"Exactly," Summitt said.
Spani is not the only Lady Vol needing treatment. Kelley Cain, a 6'6 redshirt sophomore center, was visibly stiff Sunday, the result of knee and back pain. Cain also will seek some rehab on Tuesday.
"I think it would be good for her to get a little tender loving care," Summitt said.
Sophomore forward Glory Johnson will get some extra attention from Summitt on Tuesday after her offensive stat line Sunday. It wasn't the 1-8 performance from the field that bothered Summitt but where Johnson took the shots – well away from the basket.
"I am going to watch film with her (before practice)," Summitt said. "Glory, I think she tries so hard, and she's so athletic and she gets a little out of control."
Summitt is inclined to leave Johnson and Cain in the starting lineup in the paint with Williams, Bjorklund and Stricklen on the perimeter. Alyssia Brewer, a post player who is every inch of 6'3, has been very effective for the Lady Vols this season.
"I like Lyssi coming off the bench," Summitt said. "She has really been impressive. I think she's been more coachable. I think she understands what her strengths are. There is a big difference in freshmen and sophomores if they really are invested."
The team will return to practice Tuesday afternoon. Summitt opted to give the players the day off Monday after the hard-fought win on Sunday in Columbia, S.C.
"They needed that," Summitt said. "That was a hard game and the fact they could pull the game out … we've got to be smart here. We've got a game coming up Thursday and then Monday so just trying to keep everybody fresh."